Real and Magical

"The Air Above Marfa," by Don Stinson, oil on linen.

For its current exhibition, Robischon Gallery stitched together three solos and a duet to make something that looks a museum theme show. The shared subject is the Western landscape as translated by contemporary painters and photographers living and working in Colorado.

The first up is Don Stinson: Shared Sky/Natural Forces, which showcases a batch of the well-known artist's newest paintings. Stinson takes a traditional approach to painting, but he adds a contemporary twist through the subject matter, which typically involves non-picturesque views of civilization's insensitive encroachment on the natural environment. Stinson takes a pro-environmental position in these oil-on-linen pieces, equating the damage of satellite dishes in Texas, as seen in "The Air Above Marfa," with a bonfire at the Burning Man festival, depicted in the majestic "Desert Burn." In both, the influence of humanity -- whether the counterculture kids in the desert or the corporate bigwigs on the prairie -- has the same result: damage to the earth. Each also references the art world: While Burning Man purports to be about art, and people who call themselves artists are involved, Marfa has become an important regional center for real art by real artists.

In the large front space adjacent to the Stinson show is a collection of ethereal photos that make up Kevin O¹Connell. Unlike most artists interested in the Western landscape, O'Connell doesn't look to the mountains. Instead, he turns to the plains and the clouds for his exquisitely executed prints, done in either platinum or silver. On the long wall are twenty views of the horizon taken from a great distance. At first glance, these images look like minimalist abstracts, because O'Connell's technique creates a dark bar at the bottom and a light gray field that fills up the rest of the composition.

On the other side of the room are three large photos from O'Connell's "Lightning" series; adjacent to them are three from the "False Aurora" series. For the lightning group, the prominent Colorado photographer shot trees illuminated only by nearby lightning flashes -- though he doesn't actually show the streak itself. The "False Aurora" photos capture the clouds at night as they are illuminated by the glow of Denver's ambient light. Like the plains photos, these series have a minimalist quality. The "Lightning" photos are predominantly black on black, while the "False Aurora" ones are done in an all-over misty gray.

In the gallery next to Robischon's office is David Sharpe: Lost Altars. Sharpe specializes in enlargements of pinhole originals. He processes the pinholes out in the field -- he's outfitted his truck as an ad-hoc photo lab -- and then uses homemade enlargers back at home to transfer the images onto oversized sheets of photosensitive paper. For this latest group, he recorded would-be landmarks in the countryside, including an abandoned aviary, a collapsing barn and a mangy Charlie Brown tree. Part of the appeal of Sharpe's very appealing photos is the way he conveys the atmosphere, making the subjects look like apparitions.

In the Viewing Room, the gallery put together a spur-of-the-moment pairing of quirky documentary photos by Eric Paddock and heroic landscapes by Chuck Forsman. Paddock has an eye for the eccentricities of small-town life, while Forsman combines his memories of Viet Nam with the familiar sights of the Rockies.

These separate features at Robischon are great individually, but seen as a single effort they're even better, transcending the inevitable idiosyncrasies of each to form a single coherent statement. Here's a warning, though: The marvelous diversions close in just over a week.

Another contemporary artist interested in representational imagery is featured in Frank Sampson, at Sandy Carson Gallery. Unlike the artists at Robischon, however, Sampson revels not in the great outdoors, but in his own innermost thoughts. Looking at a Sampson painting, viewers are confronted with any number of recognizable things -- landscapes, animals, people -- assembled to portray improbable situations. The meanings of these paintings are completely opaque, though it is apparent that there are underlying stories -- at least for Sampson.

At 78, the Boulder-based artist has a distinguished career of more than fifty years under his belt, making him a bona fide local treasure. Born in South Dakota and educated at the University of Iowa, where he studied with legendary printmaker Mauricio Lasansky, Sampson joined the art faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1961. The late '50s and early '60s marked the first time that Boulder had an art scene of any consequence, and Sampson joined such luminaries as George and Betty Woodman and the late Gene Matthews, among many others. Sampson, now a professor emeritus, taught thousands of students at CU until his retirement in 1990.

Thanks to a Fulbright fellowship, Sampson studied in Belgium before coming to CU, and that perhaps explains why his work of the '60s was so completely out of step with prevailing American styles, including abstract expressionism, pop art and minimalism. Instead, Sampson explored styles that dated to the pre-World War II period -- notably, surrealism and magic realism -- and updated them in his own, idiosyncratic way. Oddly enough, his then-eccentric and backward-looking tastes came back in vogue in the 1980s, giving his work a new audience.

All of the paintings at Sandy Carson were done in the past year or so and showcase Sampson's powerhouse painting skills; considering how detailed and elaborate they are, finishing them would have been a considerable task for an artist half Sampson's age. One of the great things about art is that artists can often avoid retiring and continue to work way into old age. At 78, a surgeon or basketball player might no longer be up to the tasks at hand, but an artist can practice his trade at as high a level as ever. In fact, artists sometimes do the best work of their lives after giving up their day jobs. That holds true for Sampson, who is still evolving stylistically.

Gallery owner Sandy Carson, who has represented Sampson for decades, points out how different the surfaces are in these new paintings compared to the artist's past work. Instead of being smooth and tight, they are scuffed, smeared and brushy. She also notes a shift in color, with an increased use of light, even cheery shades in addition to his signature dark ochers and umbers.

The first thing visitors will notice when they enter the gallery is "Landscape With Balloon." In style, it has a European old-master quality, as does everything else in this show. Filling a good deal of the painting is a hill with a cliff, behind and below which four odd figures in archaic costumes are gathered. Above them, in the distance, is a hot-air balloon flying through the sky. It's impossible to say what it all means, but it's beautiful -- especially the vaporous quality of the paint, which in places was handled like veils or stains.

"Midnight Arrival" proves Sampson's still at the top of his form, as it was completed only recently and is one of the finest paintings in the show. The piece features a small sailboat at sea, with two men sitting in it and facing each other. The two appear to be the same man -- perhaps Sampson himself? Standing up is a shirtless and muscular young man serving as boatman, but instead of a sailor's cap, he wears a jester's hat. The surface is like velvet, the draftsmanship sublime, and the composition hits the mark. In fact, everything about this painting is perfect.

This review is going to have to serve as the final call for Frank Sampson at Sandy Carson, because it closes this Saturday, just a few days from now. If you haven't seen it yet, consider yourself warned.

The Denver art world really has had an embarrassment of riches lately. As a critic, I can barely keep up. Though we are on the cusp of April, the season is still sailing along at full mast, and it really should be slowing down on its way to the summer off-season. Apparently, when the business gets tough, the tough mount important exhibits.

Among the many things that makes this interesting is the fact that the list of potential venues has been dwindling. Studio Aiello closed and is no longer in the mix. Though the Colorado Photographic Arts Center is currently sponsoring a show at Gallery Roach, it gave up its own gallery this past fall. Innumerable small spots have also shut down, and the Denver Art Museum is all but closed in preparation for the opening of the Hamilton wing this fall. I can't imagine how hectic it's going to be then. Not only will the DAM be unveiling a raft of new exhibits along with the new building, but every gallery in town will also be doing special programming to coincide with the opening. I can hardly wait, though the prospect of it does seem a little daunting.

I think explanations for why there are so many good shows out there are pretty simple. The art business fell flat on its face after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which made things much more competitive. The search for scarcer art dollars led dealers to up the ante in terms of the quality of their shows.

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